The debate about air supremacy in the Aegean – and the Eastern Mediterranean – is as old as the tension in Greek-Turkish relations from the Turkish invasion of Cyprus onwards. Not surprisingly, this debate still dominates today, this time indirectly, as a – as yet indeterminate – bra de fer develops within the US political establishment and bureaucracy over whether to approve the sale of 40 new F-16s and modernization of 80 of the already existing fighters of the same type of the Turkish Air Force.
This discussion concerns Greece, on the one hand, on principle, as a possible negative response from the American side will certainly have collateral effects on the whole range of Turkish relations with NATO, on the other hand, due to the consequences on the air balance. But how is this balance established? Turkey currently has a total of 260 F-16s and 19 Phantoms.
The F-16s are of Block 30, Block 40 and Block 50 configuration and joined the Turkish Air Force in 10 phases, between 1987 and 2012. In between, Ankara had joined the Joint Strike Fighter program in 2002, which evolved into what it is today it is known as the F-35 fifth generation fighter. After several ups and downs, Turkey had ended up ordering a total of 100 F-35As and participating in the program with its defense industry.
In 2017, when the then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced together with the then US President in Washington the decision to upgrade a total of 84 F-16s of the Air Force to the Viper configuration, the outlook for air balance in the Aegean looked bleak. And this is because a few months later (May 2018) the first Turkish F-35 was test-flying at the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas, while it was estimated that by 2020, the first six fifth-generation fighters would already be in Turkey. None of this happened because in July 2019, Turkish pilots and personnel already in training on the F-35 were warned to leave US soil because their country was kicked out of the program. Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems were now on Turkish soil.
These clarifications are useful in order to show that Greece’s current superiority over Turkey is due almost exclusively to Ankara’s political decisions and not to any decisive influence of Athens in Washington, as claimed by Turkish circles. While Ankara awaits approval to modernize its F-16s, buy new ones and regain access to spare parts, Athens has made leaps and bounds. At the moment it has a total of 153 F-16s, of which 83 are configured as Vipers (the first two are already ready, before the end of the year this number may even reach 6), 6 French Rafales (with more 18 to be received by 2024), 24 Mirage 2000-5 and 34 F-4E Phantom. Of the 153 F-16s, the 38 that belong to the Block 50 configuration will be upgraded, while from the oldest (Block 30), some will continue their deterrence work and others will be converted into training planes for new pilots in the Aegean. The only ones expected to be retired in the coming years are the Phantoms.
Also, within 2023 the start of negotiations with the USA for the F-35 is expected, with the aim of landing the first (of the 20+20 that have been requested) fifth generation fighter in Greece in 2027-28. If you add to the equation the new Italian M-346 trainers that will join the training center in Kalamata (which the Greek and Israeli Defense Ministers N. Panagiotopoulos and Benny Gantz are visiting this week), then it becomes clear that the PA. is turning into a powerful force with the possibility of intervention in the entire Eastern Mediterranean.
Timelines are relentless for Turkey. If, somehow, the legal hurdles are overcome, then the first upgraded F-16s or new aircraft of this type will not land in Turkey before 2026-27. However, removing the legal obstacles would mean the immediate release of the ability to support the Turkish Air Force’s existing F-16s, the availability of which is estimated to be particularly low.
Beyond the diplomatic spotlight in Greek-Turkish, which last week was characterized by the efforts of the two Ministers of Defense Nikos Panagiotopoulos and Hulusi Akar to create a climate that allows the opening of some channels of communication and the insistence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in persistently maintaining high tones , behind the scenes it appears that the impasse is much deeper. It has come to the knowledge of “K” that in the latest efforts made by third parties in order to spy on Ankara’s intention to proceed in some way in discussions with Athens, with the aim of ending up in international arbitration or at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the answers from the Turkish side they were negative. Competent sources estimate that this perception mainly concerns the understanding, mainly by Turkish diplomats, of the extreme pre-election reality, which already prevails inside the country.
In Athens, these signals have arrived from various directions. Despite the generally heavy atmosphere and the obsession of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to maintain the aggressive rhetoric, in Athens they are working to maintain the existing channel of communication (Panagiotopoulos – Akar) and create new ones. This is a particularly difficult equation, the solution of which – in one way or another – is linked to US-Turkish relations and Erdogan’s bargain within NATO. It seems, however, that the Istanbul meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and the signal that the F-16 case remains open for Turkey paved the way for the Panagiotopoulos-Akar meeting last Thursday .